Updated: Oct 22, 2020
We can probably all agree that no one likes to fail. The feelings that begin to set in when you can see that a plan, a project, the budget or some other thing of importance starts to go south is enough to paralyze any leader.. The fear of failure is a hidden challenge that many leaders and their team members face on a daily basis. And while not often discussed, it shows up in multiple ways including:
No regard for deadlines or timeliness in execution.
Inertia, recycling comments or never ending discussions when it comes time to make decisions on small things like a change request, a consultants proposal or even vacation days to bigger more impactful things like presenting the budget or the hiring or releasing of a C-Suite exec or other heavy-weight leadership roles.
Blaming, complaining and deflecting to avoid individual accountability.
Holding back on sharing of ideas and innovative thinking
And the list goes on. At different points in my career I may have been challenged by one or more of the above because I was afraid of making a "bad" decision and "looking bad" or worse, making others "look bad". I was, on some level, afraid of failing. Can you relate?
This is not entirely our fault. As professionals we're not taught that failure is acceptable. All through business school and even in some coaching forums, winning is the focus, failure is not an option. From the moment we generate our resumes to the point of receiving an end of year bonus, we are taught that success is rewarded and failure is like a death sentence. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm very aware that in order to deliver great results for the people we serve a.k.a. clients, customers and internal stakeholder, we must be able to succeed, but on the way to that success, I feel it is important to cultivate an acceptance of failing. And, it doesn't stop there. We must be willing to see failure from the perspective of being effective in how we fail and how we respond to failure when it occurs.
The concept of Fail Fast, Fail Forward is the way to create this shift as it immediately creates a context for leaders to have the conversation with their teams about effective failure and releases the stigma of failing by making it very clear on "how". In essence it gets to the point that failure is going to happen and when it does, we must do so quickly and with our focus steadily on the vision of success or achieving our goal.
When leaders and teams recognize that a plan isn't working or a designed outcome isn't coming together, it's more effective to skip the multiplicity of rescue missions and just pivot (try something else quickly) or go back to the drawing board. This approach of pivoting tends to be more common within the tech industry which is accustomed to multiple test cycles or do overs, a natural part of creating a new solution for the market. I suppose it was my training in technology that allowed me at an early age to become open to viewing trial & error as exploring possibilities; rather than the error being an indication of my inability to deliver good results.
The fail fast principle also helps us to challenge ourselves and our teams to become more self-aware in the face of failure; recognize when emotional sabotage is taking over and pivot in our mindset instead of settling into the negative, self-deprecating thinking that typically accompanies things going wrong.
The second component of effective failing reminds us to get back to our vision. This removes the angst of "feeling like a failure" and makes our challenges and even our mistakes less personal and gets us to focus on the work to be done. Using our vision or goal as the anchor, we can quickly get back to ideation and solution seeking; this shifting also proves to be a great motivator to quickly rebuild momentum.
Through practicing the fail forward approach, my teams have been able to increase their appetites for being bold and taking risks when faced with failing as they become more willing to explore the possibilities that exist on the other side of failure.
The positive viewpoints of going through failure are shared by many successful persons including Oprah who shared this perspective in her 2013 Harvard Commencement Address: "There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction."